Amid the anger that has erupted in Syria following the publication of images of the battered face of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a chilling new report detailing the brutality of Syrian security forces in the Syrian city of Daraa.
“For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity. They need to stop – and if they don’t, it is the (UN) Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice.”
These are the words of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, introducing a chilling new 54-page report, “We’ve Never Seen Such Horror: Crimes against Humanity in Daraa.”
The “systematic killings and torture” by Syrian security forces in the city of Daraa since protests began there on March 18, 2011, “strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity,” the Human Rights Watch report said.
Hamza — a pudgy-cheeked 13-year-old — was reportedly arrested, tortured and killed in custody and has become a symbol of the violent suppression of protesters by the Assad regime and a potential tipping point after 12 weeks of bloodshed, HRW said.
HRW‘s report is based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses. It focuses on violations in Daraa governorate, where some of the worst violence took place after protests seeking greater freedoms began in various parts of the country. The specifics went largely unreported due to the information blockade imposed by the Syrian authorities. Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.
HRW said the Syrian government “should take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces. The United Nations Security Council should impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn’t respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).”
But getting the Security Council to act is not going to be easy. Russia and China have made it clear they are not inclined to participate in any overall condemnation of the Assad regime nor any call for referral to the ICC.
The US has already adopted unilateral sanctions against Assad and his top lieutenants, but they are not likely to have a major negative impact on the country.
China and Russia are likely to oppose UN-backed sanctions and are strongly opposed to a Libya-type action, even if such an operation were militarily possible in Syria.
The HRW reports says “the protests first broke out in Daraa in response to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government’s downfall. In response and since then, security forces have repeatedly and systematically opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. The security forces have killed at least 418 people in the Daraa governorate alone, and more than 887 across Syria, according to local activists who have been maintaining a list of those killed. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.”
Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against protesters and bystanders, in most cases without advance warning or any effort to disperse the protesters by nonviolent means. Members of various branches of the mukhabarat (security services) and numerous snipers positioned on rooftops deliberately targeted the protesters, and many of the victims had lethal head, neck, and chest wounds. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which security forces participating in the operations against protesters in Daraa and other cities had received “shoot-to-kill” orders from their commanders.
Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to halt immediately the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release all arbitrarily arrested detainees, and provide human rights groups and journalists with immediate and unhindered access to Daraa.
It also called on the Security Council to adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on officials responsible for continuing human rights violations, as well as to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the grave, widespread and systemic human rights violations committed in Syria.
“Syrian authorities did everything they could to conceal their bloody repression in Daraa,” Whitson said. “But horrendous crimes like these are impossible to hide, and sooner or later those responsible will have to answer for their actions.”
Michelle Shephard, National Security reporter for the Toronto Star, wrote that young Hamza went missing after a protest in the southern Syrian village of Jiza on April 29, and “until his body was returned to his family Friday, his whereabouts were unknown. Activists said he was tortured and killed by Syria’s security services during a month in custody.”
Syrian state TV reported that Hamza was hit by three bullets outside the military complex where he was protesting. There was a delay in returning the body because his identity was unknown, the government-sponsored station stated.
But a video posted on YouTube showing his beaten corpse has sparked international condemnation and become a rallying cry for Syria’s protesters, who shouted this week: “We are all Hamza al-Khateeb.”
Hamza’s father, obviously under duress, appeared on Syrian State TV and praised Assad for his leadership. It was widely reported that the government has threatened his family.
HRW said. “It is difficult to look at his injuries and not think about what he endured — the boy’s face is purple and swollen; there are bullet and burn marks on his chest. A narrator states that his kneecaps were also shattered and his penis severed.”
“I have a child who is exactly that age and I just cannot comprehend the cruelty. It is so hitting home,” said Abdalla Rifai, of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. The Washington-based non-profit group was established to support the “democratic aspirations of Syrians” and is suing Assad’s regime in U.S. courts for human rights abuses.
Despite the courage of the protesters and the ferocity of their clashes with government forces, Syria experts remain doubtful that there are enough demonstrators to outnumber the security services. As long as they situation remains, Assad may be able to control the uprising.
Assad inherited power in July 2000, a month after his father Hafez al-Assad died. The senior Assad had ruled for three decades and his son inherited a government led by the Arab Socialist Baath party and dominated by Alawites – a minority Shia sect that makes up between five and 10 per cent of the population in a predominantly Sunni country (74 per cent). The Alawites are regarded as extraordinarily clever in holding on to their minority power.